WARSAW (Reuters) - Riot police in the Polish capital used truncheons and rubber bullets on Sunday to break up a crowd of right-wing extremists who pelted them with firecrackers and lumps of concrete at a parade to mark the national holiday.
It was the second year independence day celebrations have degenerated into violence, underlining the gulf between the government and hardline nationalists who think liberal values imported from Europe are ruining Poland’s Catholic traditions.
Police told Reuters that 132 people were detained following the violence, which took place in central Warsaw. Five policemen sustained injuries that needed hospital treatment.
The day started with thousands of police in riot gear lining the streets trying to stop trouble erupting between right-wing groups, left-wing radicals, and government supporters — all holding their own independence day parades to push their competing visions of what sort of country Poland should be.
Poland, the biggest economy in eastern Europe, is experiencing a period of peace and prosperity unusual for a country with such a turbulent history.
Prime Minister Donald Tusk, a liberal, is credited by many Poles for bringing political stability. But the predominantly Catholic society is deeply split over issues such as abortion, gay rights and how deeply to integrate with the European Union.
Violence flared as demonstrators gathered for a right-wing rally in the shadow of the Palace of Culture and Science, a neo-gothic, Soviet-era skyscraper in the city center.
Young men with their faces covered by scarves chanted nationalist slogans and railed against supposed Jewish conspiracies.
“We are Poles, that is why we came here. Poland is going in ... the direction of dependency, energy dependency, economic dependency,” said a demonstrator who gave his name as Wojciech.
Not all were there because of their political convictions. Large numbers appeared to be soccer hooligans who were attracted by the prospect of a fight.
Some of the crowd threw firecrackers and projectiles at police in riot gear who had cordoned off the area. They also ran to a nearby construction site and tore off lumps of concrete to use as missiles.
A Reuters correspondent saw police respond by beating protesters with truncheons, forcing the rioters to disperse.
“The police used rubber bullets, pepper spray, stun grenades and truncheons,” said police spokesman Mariusz Sokolowski.
After about an hour the fighting ended and the right-wing march was allowed to set off, though it was shadowed closely by a big contingent of riot police.
Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, addressing the official independence day parade in Warsaw a few hours before the violence broke out, appealed for a less polarized society.
“Today public life is poisoned by excessive rows,” he said. “We should be critical, but criticism should not mean mutual destruction.”
The November 11 celebration marks the day in 1918 when Poland regained its independence after having been carved up for 123 years by Russia, Prussia and Austria.
On the same date last year, right-wing demonstrators fought pitched battles with police who were trying to prevent them attacking a counter-demonstration by left-wing radicals.
Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Stephen Powell